Are there any studies concerning the psychological aspects of timbre processing in the brain, e.g. while listening to music? In particular, can any lower-level correlates be discerned when trying to answer questions like:

  • what makes particular timbres more pleasing than others? (e.g. a trumpet vs pure sine wave)

  • what accounts for different preferences between people? (e.g. preference for piano sound over trumpet)

  • $\begingroup$ I think this is a great question (I'm a "lower-level correlates" fan, myself), but I think it's going to be hard to take something highly abstract like taste preferences ("Do I like that?" can be a decision based on a very large and multimodal feature space) and map them to neurophysiological processes, like we could for tonal processing and the like. $\endgroup$ – Chuck Sherrington Feb 2 '13 at 0:26
  • $\begingroup$ (someone is perfectly welcome to prove me wrong on that) $\endgroup$ – Chuck Sherrington Feb 2 '13 at 0:27
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    $\begingroup$ I Mostly agree with Chuck. But I think the physics of the timbre are important to decomposing timbre so that we can talk about what different characteristics create what different effects. The major characteristics of timbre are: attack, decay, and sustain. They basically describe the shape of the envelope. Also important are the harmonics of the instrument (for instance, on a violin, the strings themselves have harmonics but the body of the violin also resonates). I think part of the richness of the violin as how intense the timbre is. The strings are constantly being perturbed. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Keplinger Feb 2 '13 at 1:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Xurtio Sure, that would certainly be true if you could extract which physical features make those notes unique and examine them objectively, recognizing that the quantity "timbre" (e.g.,note on a piano vs. note on a violin, as the Wiki example cites) itself is likely measurable. The higher-level "judgement" of that complex quantity is likely still too abstract, though. $\endgroup$ – Chuck Sherrington Feb 2 '13 at 4:44
  • $\begingroup$ I think you probably could to some extent. If you have people judge the quality of several timbres and see if there is a particular trend for timbres with sharper attacks for instance. $\endgroup$ – Keegan Keplinger Feb 2 '13 at 20:12

For a general discussion of neural correlates of music perception, check out the review by Koelsch et al (2005).

Menon et al (2002) provide a starting point for learning about neural correlates of timbre processing. I quote the abstract. But have a look at the article for more info

Timbre is a major structuring force in music and one of the most important and ecologically relevant features of auditory events. We used sound stimuli selected on the basis of previous psychophysiological studies to investigate the neural correlates of timbre perception. Our results indicate that both the left and right hemispheres are involved in timbre processing, challenging the conventional notion that the elementary attributes of musical perception are predominantly lateralized to the right hemisphere. Significant timbre-related brain activation was found in well-de- fined regions of posterior Heschl’s gyrus and superior temporal sulcus, extending into the circular insular sulcus. Although the extent of activation was not significantly different between left and right hemispheres, temporal lobe activations were significantly posterior in the left, compared to the right, hemisphere, suggesting a functional asymmetry in their respective contributions to timbre processing. The implications of our findings for music processing in particular and auditory processing in general are discussed.

Halpern et al (2004) provide another relevant study:

The generality of findings implicating secondary auditory areas in auditory imagery was tested by using a timbre imagery task with fMRI. Another aim was to test whether activity in supplementary motor area (SMA) seen in prior studies might have been related to subvocalization. Participants with moderate musical background were scanned while making similarity judgments about the timbre of heard or imagined musical instrument sounds. The critical control condition was a visual imagery task. The pattern of judgments in perceived and imagined conditions was similar, suggesting that perception and imagery access similar cognitive representations of timbre. As expected, judgments of heard timbres, relative to the visual imagery control, activated primary and secondary auditory areas with some right-sided asymmetry. Timbre imagery also activated secondary auditory areas relative to the visual imagery control, although less strongly, in accord with previous data. Significant overlap was observed in these regions between perceptual and imagery conditions. Because the visual control task resulted in deactivation of auditory areas relative to a silent baseline, we interpret the timbre imagery effect as a reversal of that deactivation. Despite the lack of an obvious subvocalization component to timbre imagery, some activity in SMA was observed, suggesting that SMA may have a more general role in imagery beyond any motor component.


  • Menon, V., Levitin, D. J., Smith, B. K., Lembke, A., Krasnow, B. D., Glazer, D., ... & McAdams, S. (2002). Neural correlates of timbre change in harmonic sounds. Neuroimage, 17(4), 1742-1754. PDF
  • Halpern, A. R., Zatorre, R. J., Bouffard, M., & Johnson, J. A. (2004). Behavioral and neural correlates of perceived and imagined musical timbre. Neuropsychologia, 42(9), 1281-1292. PDF
  • Koelsch, S., & Siebel, W. A. (2005). Towards a neural basis of music perception. Trends in cognitive sciences, 9(12), 578-584. Koelsch, S., & Siebel, W. A. (2005). Towards a neural basis of music perception. Trends in cognitive sciences, 9(12), 578-584. HTML

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